A fading passion — debt, deficits recede from view

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this April 8, 2013, file photo, copies of President Barack Obama's budget plan for fiscal year 2014 are prepared for delivery at the U.S. Government Printing Office in Washington.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Just four years ago, deficits and debt were an explosive political combination, propelling Republicans to control of the House and fueling the budget fights that would ensue over the next three years.

Today, they are an afterthought, a dying ember in Washington's political and policy landscape.

The nation's annual deficit, the amount the government spends beyond what it receives in revenue, has been cut by nearly two-thirds from its 2009 high, thanks to a combination of tax increases, an improving economy and mandatory across-the-board cuts in programs from defense to transportation to education.

Lawmakers, fatigued by their budget battles, have called a truce and abandoned the brinkmanship that led to unnerving default threats and a partial government shutdown.

As a result, the impulse to cut will be decidedly weaker when President Barack Obama submits his latest budget plan to Congress early next month. The White House drove home the point Thursday when it said Obama's budget would not include his past offer to cut spending on federal benefits by giving lower cost-of-living increases to beneficiaries.

"It's hard to deny that there is less political momentum at this moment, in the year 2014, for the type of extensive budget negotiations we saw in 2011 and 2012," said Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council and a close Obama adviser.

That doesn't mean the problem has been solved. Far from it. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects deficits will rise again in a couple of years, pushed up by an aging population, rising health care costs and anticipated increases in interest on the nation's debt, the amount accumulated over the years by deficit spending.

But the public has shifted its anger. The 2008-09 bank bailouts and the stimulus spending that Obama set in motion in 2009 sparked the revolt in 2010 as swing voters — those who might vote for either Democratic or Republican candidates — demanded more fiscal accountability. With another midterm election this year, swing voters appear more concerned about their own personal economic circumstances, and Republicans are focused on making the election a referendum on Obama's health care law.

A Gallup poll last week showed public preoccupation with debt and deficits falling as concern about jobs took over as the top worry for Americans. Health care continued to rank among the top problems cited by those surveyed, though it has dropped slightly from its high in November during the botched enrollment rollout of the law.

"Deficits and debt remain salient with the Republican base, but the middle has moved on," Republican pollster Wes Anderson said. "They were there in 2010, but now they are pretty strongly focused on Obamacare, with the economy as an issue picking up steam."

Indeed, Republicans are now not only attacking the health care law but shifting from calling for cuts to complaining about them.

House Republican leaders are drawing attention to the health care law's reductions in spending for Medicare Advantage, an option available to older Americans who are eligible for Medicare. In a letter to Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and other top House Republicans complained that the cuts, which Republicans themselves have included in past budgets, would result in higher health care costs for those who enroll in the program.

"Now is not the time to shortchange seniors' choices," the Republicans wrote in a not-so-veiled appeal for the over-65 vote.

That fundamental shift in attention may well be both a blessing and a curse.

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